Vowel systems and musical sounds

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[This is a guest post by H. Krishnapriyan]

Would you know of any ready reference that talks about vowels not getting articulated in specific places in the mouth, but rather being part of a system of vowels where the sound value of a vowel is determined by the vowel's relative position of articulation with respect to other vowels? I recall reading about this decades back, most likely, in a book by Henry Sweet.

My renewed interest in the topic is due to the fact that I found something I was looking for for a long time — a recording of a piece of Karnatak music that illustrates this (just the first couple of minutes) — the singer articulates the word paripaalaya in different ways that all make sense, illustrating the above paragraph.
I had heard the famous singer, M.D. Ramanathan, sing this in live concerts at about the same time I had read about the vowel systems. I had marveled at how a phonetic observation in a book from one place got illustrated by a piece of music from a very different place. Now thanks to the wonders of www, I can locate the actual piece of music to share!
Selected readings


  1. AntC said,

    November 27, 2023 @ 5:26 am

    I'm not sure I would go looking in Western texts for how that 'mouthfeel' is articulated. The Indian Classical musical tradition is surely sufficient unto itself.

    A Sanskrit treatise on the performance arts [200 BCE ~ 200 CE]

    The Natyashastra discusses Vedic songs, and also dedicates over 130 verses to non-Vedic songs.[74] Chapter 17 of the text is entirely dedicated to poetry and the structure of a song, which it states is also the template for composing plays.[75] … It also elaborates on 33 melodic alankāras in songs.
    [follow the link to alankāras — on the brief rundown there, that seems a close fit to your question]

    a system of vowels where the sound value of a vowel is determined by the vowel's relative position of articulation with respect to other vowels?

    Would be Sandhi(?) — again, the Sanskrit theoreticians were centuries ahead of Western Linguistics.

  2. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    November 27, 2023 @ 6:26 am

    I am not sure either for "mouthfeel" Western musical texts…
    Maybe Aristides Quintilianus (Ἀριστείδης Κοϊντιλιανός) and his "musical treatise" where he spoke a lot about vowels in music?

    one example below:

    "Since the character of melody, both in song and in instrumental pieces (kōla), is grasped through its similarity to the sounds produced by our vocal organs, I have made a selection of the letters that are suitable (harmottonta) for use in vocalizing melodies. There are seven vowels [α ε η ι ο υ ω], and we can see the distinctions mentioned previously both in the long ones and the short ones."

    Arist. Quint. (77.30-79.5, 79.26-80.1)

  3. Chris Button said,

    November 27, 2023 @ 2:38 pm

    I love how dynamic this approach sounds.

    For example, feature analyses like [- high] and [- low] are a way to define a mid-vowel (neither [+ high] nor [+ low]) rather than usefully address its distinctive features. Once you go beyond cardinal points, the whole thing becomes about gradients rather than points and ends up fairly language specific in any case.

  4. Theo said,

    November 30, 2023 @ 5:10 pm

    It reminds me of Western operatic singing. Opera singers alter their vowels drastically in order to generate what is known as the "singer's formant", which allows their voice to cut through a loud orchestra. While doing so, the relations between vowels are preserved to maintain intelligibility.

    Using vowels to tune the level of resonance is also a common way to create contrasts in timbre and volume in a Western choral setting.

    I can recommend The Oxford Handbook of Singing.

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